The challenge of the virtuosi/improvisers

Posted on November 22nd, 2015 by


There’s a challenge for us all. The 19th century was the highwater mark of the improvising virtuosi. It was their bread and butter, the very stuff of what we now call ‘classical music’. By 1836 Pierre Baillot noted (in l’Art du Violon) that young players did not know how to improvise any more. So here’s a response to the challenge.

Paganini, improvising in in 1828, notated by the Frankfurt-based Kapellmeister and innovator. Carl Guhr. This was actually an enormous elaboration of an introduction and capriccio which Paganini had already notated. LINK to hear this version.

Niccolo Paganini/trascribed by Carl Guhr 1828-Variations & Capriccio o ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’from’Paisiello ‘la Molinara’


Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Stradivari 1699 ‘Crespi’

Niccolo Paganini-Attributed to Daniel Maclise. Interestingly, this is the only close up painting of Paganini playing that I know. Look at the fascinating depiction of the bow hand, related to the guitar hand position, and the careful depiction of the artfully broken e a and d strings.

Niccolo Paganini-Attributed to Daniel Maclise. Interestingly, this is the only close up painting of Paganini playing that I know. Look at the fascinating depiction of the bow hand, related to the guitar hand position, and the careful depiction of the artfully broken e a and d strings.

Charles Auguste de Bériot’s own notation (undated) of his own ‘prelude or improvisation’. A rare large-scale example of free improvisation, without at theme.

Charles Auguste de Bériot – Prelude, ou Improvisation


Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Stradivari 1704 ‘Betts’ (Live at Library of Congress)

Playing de Beriot on the Betts at the lIbrary of Congress. Photo: Richard Bramm

Playing de Beriot on the Betts at the lIbrary of Congress. Photo: Richard Bram

Ole Bull’s fantasy on American themes, which he first played in Madison Wisconsin in 1847. This is all but lost; all we have are the names of the tunes which he used, and a few fragments. I used these fragments, found in collections in USA, UK, and Norway and reimagined the piece. 90% of it is me, but using what I know of Bull’s improvising style in the USA.

Ole Bull/Peter Sheppard Skaerved-American Fantasy (Jordan is a hard road to travel, The Hazel Dell, Home Sweet Home, Arkansas Traveller, Pop Goes the Weasel + Capriccio from the Wesley Album, Recitativo from ‘Niagara’, Cadenza from Ganz Album)


Peter Sheppard Skaerved – Amati 1647 ‘Ole Bull’

The double case (for the two Da Salo violins), still with the water damage from the riverboat accident of December 1868

Ole Bull’s double case, still with the water damage from a riverboat accident on the Mississippi in December 1868

David Matthews’ ‘Paganini Fantasia’ takes the first movement of Paganini’s 2nd Concerto and imagines how Paganini might have improvised a fantasy around it, using many of the most extreme virtuoso and timbral effects in his repertoire. This is one of our great composers, imagining his way into the mind of another!

David Matthews-‘Paganini Fantasia-After the 2nd Violin Concerto


Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Girolamo Amati, 1628

5th September 2013. -rehearsing Sadie Harrison's 'Gallery'. Enraptured by Amati. Photo-Sadie Harrison

Enraptured by Amati. Photo-Sadie Harrison

[audio][/audio]